Unmask your sparring partner before spatting

Government and Politics in Britain - Developments in British Politics 7 - Central Debates in British Politics

November 28, 2003

What should we ask of a textbook in politics? Four questions come to mind.

Does it communicate information in a clear, systematic and accessible fashion? Does it impart understanding? Does it stimulate an interest in politics? And, does it arouse the critical faculty?

John Kingdom's Government and Politics in Britain , in a completely revised edition, is a formidable and highly commendable introduction to British politics. Earlier editions have been widely acclaimed for their clarity, fluency and trenchancy of style. It is packed with illustrations and boxed quotations. Its range, depth of understanding and ability to catch and retain the reader's attention are all impressive. Of the three texts reviewed, this one meets most fully the above criteria.

Though it presents a general description of the context of politics, the book focuses on the familiar institutional landscape, but in a fresh and usually revealing manner. Each chapter recaps the main points, and lists the key concepts and a series of topics for discussion. The book benefits from being single-authored in the way that it presents political institutions as interlinked parts of a system. Though each part can be analysed separately, understanding is bound to be fragmentary unless one acquires a sense of how the parts interlock. For this reason, it is better suited than the other two books to a first dip into the study of politics.

The two other texts are multi-authored. Developments in British Politics 7 is the latest in a strong series. The aim of each chapter, written by a specialist, is to review recent policy and institutional developments. The broad theme is that, with a stream of constitutional reforms since Labour's election in 1997, the rules of the political system are being remade; the book shows the extent to which most institutions are undergoing substantial change. Particularly welcome is the emphasis given to territorial politics.

Inevitably, the book concentrates on the policies and actions of the Blair government. The style varies to a certain extent, but tends, on the whole, to be dryer than Kingdom's. Lacking the verve and energy of the latter, it does not convey the fact that politics can be exciting. Its main purpose is to present an up-to-date view of the political process, and this is largely accomplished. The first two of my above criteria are fully met.

However, the book might be hard-going for readers who lack a solid grounding in British politics, unlike Kingdom's book. Equally, it will be a rewarding read for the student already intrigued by politics but will do less to stir those whose interest is dormant or sluggish.

Central Debates in British Politics , also written by a team of experts, covers similar topics but with a different approach. The aim is to "analyse key issues in a highly structured and thematic manner" and the contributors have been reasonably disciplined in following their remit. The book aims to provoke debate among students. It points out that "disagreement is intrinsic to political discussion". What, precisely, does this mean? Presumably, both that politics as an activity is about conflict and the attempts to regulate it, and also that disagreement within the academic discipline of politics about how best to interpret and explain political phenomena is endemic, given that politics does not obey scientific laws.

Accordingly, most chapters contain a section titled "debate". Who are the protagonists in this debate and what is it about? This is not entirely clear. The book would have benefited in its exploration of the theme of the debate if each chapter had presented rival interpretations of the subject matter and then explained why politics is inherently about conflict. So although the format of Central Debates should be ideal for meeting the third and fourth of my criteria, it does not do so consistently.

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

Government and Politics in Britain: An Introduction. Third edition

Author - John Kingdom
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 725
Price - £70.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2593 2 and 2594 0

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